Since my writing focuses on athletes who play sports in adaptive ways, many parents and friends have been asking me about how to talk with kids about disabilities. I am no expert, but I do have experience from discussing differences with my students in the classroom or at home with my own children. I have not handled all of these situations perfectly, but I have learned that there are some strategies to make the conversations more meaningful and authentic. Here are my top 5 tips for talking with kids about disabilities and exceptionalities, and I included some of my own real life “mom” scenarios to help.
1. Speak up. There is no need to whisper. When we lower our voices and answer their questions about a disabled person in a whisper, we are implicitly telling our children this topic is not appropriate to talk about and we have to be careful with what we say. Instead, we need to speak up.
Caitlin: “Mom, why is that boy in the family locker room with us? He is in a wheelchair.”
Me: “He probably plays a sport. Why don’t you ask him what he plays?”
Caitlin & Me: “Excuse me, we were wondering… what sports do you play?”
Little Boy (with a grin): “I ski, swim, and play basketball.”
2. Follow their lead, but guide their path. Children are curious observers of their world and they want to share their observations. When they share their observations, they do it from their own perspective and with their own vocabulary. We need to acknowledge their observations and help them develop their language for clarity and to promote inclusion.
Caitlin (while pointing): “That little girl is wearing braces.”
Me: “Yes, she has braces on her legs.”
Caitlin: “She walks funny.”
Me (taking a deep breathe): “Her legs work differently. There are lots of ways to move, and she is headed to the library just like us.”
3. Encourage questions and reflection. Children have questions, lots of them. You don’t have to know all of the answers. You just need to be a curious listener and encourage them to reflect critically.
Nolan (my rule following and anxious child): “Why does that man have a dog in here? Isn’t that against the rules?
Me: “From the harness and vest the dog is wearing, it looks like he is a service dog. Do you know how a service dog helps people?”
4. Be curious and learn more. Differences are beautiful. Disabilities and exceptionalities give all of us an opportunity to learn more about each other and how many different ways there are to do every day tasks. It is okay to ask questions. Investigate the world with your children and learn more about it.
At an exhibit hosted by photographers with varying disabilities, Nolan asks, “Mom, he has no arms. How can he take pictures?”
Me: “I don’t know. We should ask.”
Nolan tentatively follows me over to the young man in a power chair.
Me (putting my arm around Nolan): “We love the photo you took of this young girl. We were wondering how you took it.”
Photographer: “That is my niece. I love taking pictures of her. I mount the camera to the end of my chair. Then, I use my baseball cap with this wand attached to the brim and a stylus attached at the end to focus and snap the shutter. I am really working on how I use the light in my photos.”
Nolan (moving away from me and pointing at a photo): “Yeah, I like the shadows in the picture of the telephone lines.”
Photographer: “Yes, it’s one of my favorites.”
5. My favorite response to any questions kids have that I don’t know how to answer: “That is a great question. Let’s research it.”
AN UPDATE: This post was originally written over 5 years ago before we adopted our youngest son, Ian, who has physical disability. Prior to Ian joining our family, I was only familiar with navigating the world with a child who had an invisible disability. With time and more experience, I would like to add two more tips-one on language and one on asking questions.
- Disabled and disability are neutral terms that do not have a negative or positive value. These terms can help one see the whole person and his/her experience in the world. When my child refers to himself as disabled, it gives him a voice and empowers him to identify barriers that he is experiencing.
- I still encourage asking questions. I especially appreciate curious children because I have three of them with very inquisitive minds. However, don’t expect an answer when you ask a question that choice belongs to the disabled individual.
Finally, here is a great article by Godrey Nanyenya if you are looking for more resources.